It finally happened. On a sunny weekend, I sent my 7-year-old a block ahead to the playground while I helped her little brother sort out his new pedal bike. We must have taken a long time because I started getting a bunch of calls from an unknown number. When we finally caught up, my daughter was standing with a stranger and crying. He was holding his phone. “You weren’t here,” he said accusingly.
“I was 500 feet away!” I protested. It was no use. It was time for an Apple Watch.
The Apple Watch is one of the company’s most versatile (and popular) products. Some people use it for texting or as a style accessory. I mainly use mine as a fitness tracker. In 2020, Apple released Family Setup with WatchOS 7, which explicitly marketed the more affordable, and older, versions of the Apple Watch to children and elderly relatives. I don’t want to give my kid an expensive cell phone that she’ll use to watch YouTube Kids and then immediately lose or break. I do want her to be able to find me, and vice versa, as she exercises her growing independence.
If you have an iPhone, you probably have an old Apple Watch that you can repurpose for your older or younger family members. The Series 7 has been a game-changer for my kid. Did you want to buy a watch? Check out our guides to the Best Apple Watch or the Top Features in WatchOS 9 for more.
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What Do You Need?
Apple introduced Family Setup in 2020 with WatchOS 7. To use Family Setup, you need an Apple Watch Series 4 or later with cellular capabilities that you will add to your cell phone plan. You also need an iPhone with iOS 14 or later.
Both you and your child also need an Apple ID. If both of you already have one, you can go to Settings on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, and click Family. Then click Add Member. If your child doesn’t have an Apple ID, you will be given the option to Create Child Account. From there, follow the instructions to add the child’s name, birth date, and email address. If they don’t already have an email address, you can use the suggested iCloud option.
A Blank Slate
First, unpair and erase your old Apple Watch. Open the Apple Watch app on your phone and click All Watches. Tap the info button next to your old watch and click Unpair Apple Watch. You can opt to keep your cellular plan (you’ll need it for your kid).
Unpairing is supposed to erase all content and settings on your watch, but in my case it did not. If it doesn’t work for you either, tap Settings on the watch, then General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings.
Since my kid is 7, I found it easier to set the watch up on my own. But at this point, you can have your kid put it on (if it’s charged). The watch will say Bring iPhone Near Apple Watch. If you open the Watch app, it lets you choose to Set Up for a Family Member. Aim the phone’s viewfinder at the slowly moving animation to pair, or select Pair Manually.
Apple’s tutorial is pretty straightforward from this point. I picked a passcode that’s easy for my daughter to remember and picked her from my family list. I continued cellular service. Then I set up all the usual features and services for an Apple Watch, including Ask to Buy so she couldn’t buy anything from the app store without my permission, Messages, and Emergency SOS.
I also chose to limit my daughter’s contacts on the watch. First, go to Settings > iCloud > Contacts on your phone and make sure it’s toggled on. Then click out, go back to Settings > Screen Time > Family Member > Communication Limits. You need to request your child’s permission to manage their contacts and approve it from the kid’s watch. On their watch, you can add and rename contacts from your contact list (Dad becomes “Grandpa,” Tim becomes “Uncle Timmy,” and so on).
The last and most important step is turning on Schooltime, which is basically a remote-controlled version of an adult Work Focus. It blocks apps and complications, but emergency calls can still come through. The setup tutorial walks you through how to set up Schooltime on your child’s watch, but if you skip it during setup, you can manage it later. On your iPhone, tap All Watches > Your Child’s Watch > Schooltime > Edit Schedule.
I elected to turn Schooltime on when my child is in school and turn it off during afterschool care, but you can also click Add Time if you’d like to turn it on during a morning class, take a break for lunch, and then turn it back on again. Your kid can just turn the digital crown to exit Schooltime, but that’s OK—you can check their Schooltime reports on your iPhone too.
To manage your child’s watch, go to your Watch > All Watches > Family Watches > Your Kid’s Apple Watch. This is how you install updates and manage settings, like managing the Activity app or setting up Express Transit if your child uses public transportation.
Fun for Everyone
Just as with a grown-up Apple Watch, the first thing you’ll probably want to do is switch the watch face. Hold down the screen and wait for the face to shrink, and swipe to switch. (You probably also want to buy a tiny kid-specific watch band.)
We got my daughter an Apple Watch so I’d be able to see her on Find My and she could contact me via phone or the Messages app, which she does with regrettable frequency (I’m hoping she gets tired of texting “poop” pretty soon).
Another underrated onboard app for kids is Walkie Talkie. When we were at a crowded neighborhood event, we toggled Walkie Talkie on both of our Apple Watches. My daughter was able to keep in touch with me on a minute-to-minute basis. It was reassuring that she was able to reach out and say she couldn’t see me, even if she was only 10-20 feet away.
We also like the Mindfulness app, which can persuade my sensitive kid to take a deep breath before screaming about the annoying sound her brother is making. And although I explicitly wanted to get her a watch instead of a phone so that she wouldn’t stare at a screen all day, I did cave and buy her one game, Coloring Watch, which lets her choose images, fine-tune color selections, and send her creations to us.
The most useful feature she’s found on her Apple Watch has been Siri, which makes sense. She’s not allowed unfettered access to a phone, tablet, or computer, so where else can she ask questions that adults would normally type into Google? The past week, I have eavesdropped on questions as varied as:
Hey Siri, what is Russia?How many stars are on the American flag?Can you show me pictures of the grossest animal?
In case you were wondering, the world’s grossest animals are truly revolting. We were eating dinner, and I couldn’t even click on the pictures to find out what these animals were. That’s the thing about children, though—you’re learning from them, even as you think they’re learning from you. Maybe if more of us used technology to relate to the world around us, instead getting away from it, we’d all be better off.